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  • Writer's pictureTimothy Grieve-Carlson

On Alien Authority and Angelic Mediation

On her 2019 song “Extreme Love,” Holly Herndon collaborates with the artist Jenna Sutela alongside Herndon’s nascent music AI, “Spawn,” and Herndon’s own niece, Lily Anna Haynes (the four indistinguishable Beatles they are not):

In Sutela's text for “Extreme Love,” a voice narrates a humanity oblivious to the swarming microbiome within and without the apparent boundaries of the human body. There are hints of understanding: “If we listened carefully, we could hear these little rulers in our gut.” But ultimately, the decentralized and multi-agential swarm of bacteria calls all the shots of human belief and behavior: “Microbes still swarmed through our body: those minds inside us and crawling at our feet, exerting their weird controls...They knew how to get us to spread their families, making us sneeze, or cough, or rub our nose...or even give a kiss.”

The minuscule denizens of the microbiome prove themselves capable of that most ambitious and utopian of technological goals: “There was no doubt they could travel through space. Distributed by meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids, and spacecraft, they might carry something of us as a parasite to the future.” Hope is not lost for humanity, but it is quietly revised to hope for a persistence through some residual RNA patterns, spectral echoes in the bacterial phenotype which hint a distant past in which the microbiome arranged massive haphazard distribution and feeding systems that, for a moment, believed themselves to be individuals and named themselves homo sapiens.

We happen to be living through a time of, to put it mildly, increased awareness of the microbiome and the porous boundaries of the body. Lyall Watson, the main twentieth-century proponent of the study of what I am calling paranormal ecology, took up this theme directly in his 1984 book Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind. This is perhaps Watson’s most beautifully written book, and remains well worth a look for anyone who has thought for more than a moment about wind (which no doubt contributed to the New York Review of Books to publish a handsome reprint in 2019).

Among the many themes that Watson treats in Heaven’s Breath is the atmosphere-in-motion as a connective agent between bodies, and as a vehicle of transmission and influence between superficially separate beings. In his estimation, the microbiome are clearly the most capable manipulators of this atmosphere as connective tissue.

Watson writes: “It is possible that there is a symbiotic relationship in this case between the virus and bacteria, both of whom benefit by rapid and effective dispersal. It even begins to seem likely that a sneeze, which can after all be a violent and painful experience, frequently damaging to the nasal membrane, is something imposed on us by the virus for its own nefarious ends. It is a pattern of behavior with high survival value for the parasite, but offers little to the host. Which may be why people everywhere look askance at sneezing, believing that it bares the soul, and great each personal explosion with an automatic chorus of ritual blessings. Perhaps these talismanic comments are the product of a deep-seated recognition of possession by, and surrender to, an alien authority?”

As each of us adjust to the new reality of COVID-19, we are adjusting to a new awareness of our selves and our existence reaching beyond the limits of our own bodies, into our environments and the other beings we share it with. Indeed, the six-foot standard of social distancing has extended the cognitive boundaries of everyone’s person in every direction, and we now keenly perceive and avoid the intrusion of others into our personal atmospheres.

Ecologists and evolutionary biologists have been making this clear for years: Rachel Carson was among the first well-known ecologists to point out the porous boundaries between our selves and our world in Silent Spring, with the (simple in hindsight but crushingly sophisticated at the time) observation that poisoning our own food will eventually catch up with us. In 1982, Richard Dawkins redistributed Carson’s insight even more widely and microscopically, arguing that a gene’s phenotypic effects extend far beyond the body of the organism, stretching out into the environment, including the bodies of the other organisms (The Extended Phenotype).

As the narrator of “Extreme Love” suggests and Dawkins illustrates, human behaviors like sneezing and kissing probably represent phenotypic extensions of the genomes in your body which are not homo sapiens, which is to say the majority of your body (assuming the present reader is human).

While a virus may or may not be “alive,” we are, without a doubt, experiencing the extension of its phenotypic effects in our lives, in our environment, and for some of us, in our own bodies. The question of viral "life" might not even be very important. As Dawkins writes in Phenotype: “I have not provided a rigorous definition of the organism. It is, indeed, arguable that the organism is a concept of dubious utility, precisely because it is so difficult to define satisfactorily.”

The “alien authority” of the virus, as Watson put it, is now a permanent presence in the community of microorganisms that we call our own bodies. Our medical experts continue to tell us that there is no defeating or expelling such a presence: the best we can hope for is the carefully mediated and controlled contact–the kind of contact offered to us by a vaccine.

As a mediator of alien authority, a vaccine occupies an analogous role to an angel in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic cosmologies. Angels are intermediaries, representatives of divine intention and intelligence that serve to at once connect humans with divinity while protecting them from the dangers of an uncontrolled exposure. A vaccine is an angel in analogous miniature: a regulatory technology designed to introduce humans to alien authorities gradually and, hopefully, preventing the catastrophic effects of unmediated contact.

(While I hope this doesn’t amount to an argument that the novel coronavirus is a god, the case was made capably on a recent episode of the weird studies podcast that it behaves exactly like one.)

With any luck, we will all experience the angelic mediation of a controlled contact with this new alien authority sooner rather than later: but our perception of our “selves” as rigidly bounded and defined autonomous subjects will not persist unscathed. As the narrator of “Extreme Love” reminds us, “We are completely outside ourselves, and the world is completely inside us.”

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